Watch South Carolina’s defensive line closely and you’ll see the difference.
It’s a group that badly underperformed its talent level a season ago and lost three of its more productive players. Yet watch now, and they just make more plays. They’re more likely to throw off blockers, make the tackle, stop the offense a few yards shorter.
A key difference in all that is the veteran hand of defensive line coach Lance Thompson, whose mark has been felt well beyond the field.
“He has had an outstanding impact on us,” defensive lineman Ulric Jones said. “He came in and since Day 1, he’s been straightforward. He’s a great coach. He’s awesome off the field as well as on the field. Me myself, me and him have a close relationship. He talks to me every day about just in general life things and how to be a better man, not only a better player.”
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Thompson has that kind of relationship with all his players, Jones said.
Thompson came to South Carolina with a lengthy resumé, notably several stints with Nick Saban’s staff on Alabama. He was a renowned recruiter, and while he had not worked hands on with linemen in a few years, he knows a thing or two about the position.
“Fundamentally, (with) hand placement (and) pad level, there’s been a drastic improvement in a lot of guys,” Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said. “Just basic fundamentals of football and how we teach upfront. Whether it’s from a two-gap technique to a one-gap technique to a movement. That attention to detail, he does a really good job with that and conveying the message for the player.”
Muschamp also pointed out this line still isn’t a world beater by any measure, and this is true.
South Carolina is ranked somewhere in the 60s nationally as far as how often it sacks opposing quarterbacks and how often it tackles opponents for loss. That’s progress, when USC wasn’t better than the 90th spot in either last season.
Buck Darius English doesn’t always work closely with Thompson, but he’s been impressed each time he has.
“He brings so much experience and technique, things like that,” Thompson said. “He just works with guys individually. The times that I do get work with him, I learn so much.”
Jones echoed that, noting there’s a slightly different approach he brought in when the season started.
“He has definitely installed in us [that] it’s more of a mental game than a physical game,” Jones said. “That’s something last year that I wasn’t really drilled on. But he has made it to where it’s more mental and a game of psychology than just going out and just running through people.”
The Gamecocks are doing what they’re doing with a group that didn’t have a massive infusion of new talent. Of the top eight in the rotation, six are holdovers from last year.
They have four four-star prospects in that group, plus four other blue chip linemen, and they’re playing a little more like it.
That probably owes to a few factors, but one is Thompson, a position coach who instilled the little things and had another kind of impact on his charges.
“He’s definitely a life coach,” Jones said. “Being away from home, it can be hard. You can get stressed out. He’s just one of those coaches that you can talk to who is more of a father figure. Me and him have had a close relationship ever since he’s got here.”